2018 NCAA Tournament: Michigan good-guy John Beilein is just what college basketball needs
The notoriously squeaky-clean coach has his team marching through madness
LOS ANGELES -- This tournament, this game, needs John Beilein.
Oh sure, there are other good guys who are likeable and have clean reputations. But their numbers are shrinking faster than the tuna population.
In both cases, there are too many sharks. Michigan's coach has walked the walk again. In a sport of charlatans and blowhards, in a sport of millennial power brokers and unrepentant millionaires, John Beilein literally rolls up his sleeves each night.
This time, he fooled us again. "Plodding Michigan" might as well had been a registered trademark. Then against Texas A&M in a West Regional semifinal he unleashed his sprinters.
Michigan took the Aggies' celebrated front line and ran it into a puddle of maroon. In short, these Wolverines can do anything. Or it seemed like it in a 99-72 win that catapulted No. 3 seed Michigan to the Elite Eight for the third time in six years.
The 99 points were the most by Michigan in an NCAA Tournament game since the Fab Five in 1992. Their efficiency was perhaps the best all season -- 62 percent shooting, 21 assists on 39 baskets.
With 5:39 left in the half, Michigan had as many 3s (eight) as it had in 16 games this season. It ended with 14.
"This felt like Madison Square Garden to us," Beilein said of the Staples Center that was 90-10 Michigan fans.
Some might even say the bracket is opening up for a team that tied for fourth in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are the highest-seeded remaining team on the entire left side of the 68-team bracket -- thanks to first-weekend exits for Virginia, Xavier, Cincinnati, North Carolina and Tennessee. Beilein is in his 11th season at Michigan. If he wins the national championship, he'll be one of six active coaches with 800 games.
But it may it's what didn't happen this season that defined him.
Senior forward Duncan Robinson remembers getting calls from friends when news broke in September of the now-infamous FBI investigation.
"To be honest with you, it was a cool moment to be part of this program," Robinson said, "because I had some friends playing at other programs. I'll talk to them and people [were] reaching out to them. Asking questions and stuff."
One of those players was from Louisville, Robinson said, which eventually had its 2013 championship banner taken down due to NCAA sanctions. Four other schools were implicated in the FBI investigation -- Oklahoma State, USC, Auburn and Arizona.
"Nobody even reached out to me, 'cause everyone just kind of knows," Robinson continued. "It's kind of an expectation at Michigan that [Beilein] has established."
Beilein never gets thought of that way. He has produced his share of college short-timers and pros, but there was always a certain class about it. This offseason, before the FBI investigation had even taken over the college basketball landscape, rival coaches named Beilein the cleanest coach in the game as part of CBS Sports' annual Candid Coaches poll.
This is the man who dragged Michigan out of the Tommy Amaker years. It's hard to believe previous to Beilein Michigan had missed six straight tournaments under Amaker. This is the fourth time Michigan has reached 30 wins. Beilein has coached two of those 30-win teams. If you're into karma, the previous three times the Wolverines won at least 30, they played for the national championship.
The last was in 2013. The loss to that Louisville team in the championship game reflects the dichotomy in the two programs. When media came rushing to Beilein asking if Michigan "deserved" that championship, he threw water on the campfire of controversy. The game had been played on the court.
Thursday's was played out in advance in Beilein's mind. He reminded his players Texas A&M was the team that made the all-time comeback against Northern Iowa two years ago.
"You can't take anybody for granted," Wolverines walk-on C.J. Baird said.
If you're a Michigan fan, Baird is the story of the game. In his third career game, Baird hit his first career 3, then jumped up and down like a kid who'd just hit his first career three. Baird began the season as a student manager before trying out and making it as a walk-on. It's so Michigan that a kid who came to Ann Arbor to be a finance major had the biggest moment of his athletic life.
"It brings some sort of satisfaction to team knowing that we've come so far and we've got so much to do," the 19-year-old said.
Michigan's all-time winningest coach (246 victories in 11 seasons) devised a game plan that deflated and defeated the Aggies. It helped that Texas A&M didn't make any shots early. It did matter the Aggies ceded the game just as early.
But in the battle of two football giants, there's speed then there's Big Ten speed. Or something like that. At one point, Michigan was ahead in points off turnovers 15-0. The three starting guards contributed 58 points.
The Aggies' tongues were dragging at the end.
"So you can just have games where everything's just happening your way," Beilein said. "You just try to get through the game and that's survive."
That's still what it is for Michigan. It slogged through that first-round sleeper over Montana. Jordan Poole made a national name for himself making that buzzer-beater against Houston. The Wolverines had been outplayed for 39 minutes by the Cougars.
That was Plodding Michigan. Thursday they looked like the Showtime Lakers in Staples.
"We haven't always played like that," Robinson said. "I think it's a good thing we're able to win games in different ways. I thought we've grown so much this year, when things aren't going our way we learn how to kind of deal with that adversity."
It's starting to feel like this is a team of destiny. We can say that now. Five years ago, Baird was a teenager at his grandparents house watching Trey Burke hit that 3-point bomb to force overtime in the national semifinal against Kansas.
"I ran out on the balcony, woke everybody up," Baird said.
This time he has been a sideline witness. The former student manager answered an open tryout for walk-ons.
"I saw that team [play for] the national championship," Baird said. "I see the guys we have right now. If we stay together and stay connected we can make that run again."
A team of destiny?
"Our destiny was back Sept. 1," freshman guard Zavier Simpson, "Going to work, staying together as a team, playing hard, playing hard."
If it had any it would roll up its sleeves, just like its coach.
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